(Micro essay #2)
by Travis Wall
The notion of authorship with regard to videogames is more complicated than with most media. A novel, written by a single author, is usually unambiguous as to whose message is being put forward. There may be input from the publisher, and editors can have a significant impact on a written work, but ultimately the author claims responsibility for the text. Film is more complex. Big budget productions may employ thousands of contributors, yet the director is generally seen as the person ultimately in charge of telling the story––more so than even the screenwriters or the studio executives who green-lit the production. Videogames, requiring similarly massive teams, do not always have such a clear authorship. While small productions can be the work of one or two storytellers, the larger the production teams, the more the games become the works of committees. This is deftly communicated in The Writer Will Do Something, a text-based, interactive story about a videogame writer.
In this game, the lead writer of the ShatterGate game series must deal with futile meetings in which game designers debate last-minute changes to the latest installment. No matter how drastically ShatterGate is changed, the writer is expected to adapt the story to make it all seamless. It quickly becomes evident that the writer has the last say in what happens in the game; his contributions are merely an afterthought. The various graphic artists, coders, audio engineers, and others are in conflict with each other. Each team has its own schedule and livelihood to protect. The result is a clash of feuding fiefdoms. This in-house tug-of-war is further complicated by outside consultants who insist that the game requires further changes, and the core fan-base that has different expectations than the masses to whom this game must appeal. All of this adds up to suggest that videogames are born out of conflict.
Unlike ShatterGate, The Writer Will Do Something is the work of just two people: Tom Bissell and Matthew S. Burns. They constructed it via Twine, without the need for large committees and competing interests. The game was published independently and made available for free, removing any responsibility even to their audience. They do not have great expenses to recoup, although donations are accepted.
The choose-your-own-adventure style of gameplay does add another level of authorship, however. The player may choose from a variety of paths and witness how the story progresses from there. Although these forks-in-the-road are few and far between, they are a small-scale version of how players construct their own story in most videogames, by choosing from the variables made available by the creators. Ultimately, without a certain amount of authorship on the part of the player, this would not be game, but a linear story. In “Playing on the Digital Commons: Collectivities, Capital and Contestation in Videogame Culture”, Sarah Coleman and Nick Dyer-Witheford describe this idea as it pertains to MMOGs. They state that “while ownership of MMOGs lies with the game publisher, player populations collectively determine much of what goes on in them. This ambivalence has provoked debate among game scholars as to who actually ‘rules’ MMOGs” (944). Evidently, the more complex the game, the more involved the player becomes in telling the story.
Yet there’s another level of authorship that is often overlooked: context. The response from critics and the gaming community to this game has positioned it at a particular spot within the greater landscape of games. Its place within the popular culture informs how players will approach, respond to, and interpret this game.
No matter the size of a game, the interactive element makes the notion of authorship particularly nebulous. Whether a game is initially the creation of one or two authors, or the product of a large-scale studio, once released, each game takes on a life of its own.
Coleman, Sarah, and Nick Dyer-Witheford. “Playing on the digital commons: collectivities, capital and contestation in videogame culture.” Media, Culture & Society 29.6 (2007): 934-53.
The Writer Will Do Something. Tom Bissell & Matthew Burns. 2015. Videogame.